DES MOINES — Railroads play a vital role in Iowa moving people, farm commodities and all sorts of products, but they can also be lethal to pedestrians, especially kids. A new report ranks Iowa 7th worst in the country for the number of fatal accidents in 2021 involving trains and children under 19.
Mark Chandler, senior research associate at Safe Kids Worldwide, says since trains are so big and loud, people assume they’ll be able to get out of the way if one comes along. “That’s a big misperception with folks is that they think they’ll hear a train coming but they actually don’t make that same ‘clickety-clack’ sound that they used to in the past,” Chandler says. “And they may not always have a horn to warn trespassers either. Adding to that, we see kids often wear headphones near the tracks, so in that case, they virtually can’t hear the train coming at all.”
There were eight accidents in the state last year involving children and trains, four of which resulted in deaths. Chandler says his organization’s research finds that many parents don’t consider it a priority to talk to their kids about the extreme dangers of walking or playing near railroads. “Even with parents that live close to train tracks, this is not something that’s top of mind for them,” Chandler says. “Fewer than half of parents surveyed said they’d ever talked with their child about how to be safe around railroad tracks. And then also when it came to modeling behavior, half of the parents admitted that they themselves take risks around railroads, things like walking along the train tracks and driving around the gates.”
People walking along the tracks may think they’re far enough away from the train to avoid getting hit, but Chandler says trains typically extend out at least three feet on either side of the tracks. “Trains weigh several thousand tons and that means that they can take up to a full mile to stop. That’s about the length of 15 football fields,” Chandler says, “so by the time that a train conductor actually sees a person or a vehicle on the tracks, it’s often too late for them to stop.”
The eight train accidents in Iowa involving children last year were in five counties: Black Hawk, Clarke, Mitchell, Muscatine and Polk. One of the deaths was in Black Hawk County while the other three children killed were all in Clarke County. There was also one injury in Clarke County.
Chandler urges Iowa parents to talk with their kids about the hazards and to help create a community of rail safety advocates. Nationwide, a child is killed in a train collision every five days.